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CAS Chronicles

Frontier Forum features two-time Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead

The USF College of Arts and Sciences welcomed two-time Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead on Feb. 7 at the Marshall Student Center Oval Theater, as part of the signature lecture series, Frontier Forum.

The discussion was moderated by CAS Interim Dean Magali Michael and centered on his New York Times bestselling novel, “The Nickel Boys,” which won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, making him only the fourth writer to win two Pulitzers in the Fiction category.

“The Nickel Boys” features the story of two boys living under Jim Crow at one of the country’s most notorious juvenile correction institutions – an institution inspired by the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a reform school that operated in northern Florida from 1900 to 2011.

It is a fictional story based on true events whose characters are developed from the stories told by survivors of the school.

Originally named the Florida State Reform School and later the Florida School for Boys, it gained notoriety for allegations of systemic abuse, corporal punishment, and neglect. The institution was intended to rehabilitate delinquent and troubled youth, but over the years, reports surfaced of physical and emotional abuse inflicted upon the residents.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Dozier School's history was the discovery of unmarked graves on the premises. Investigations, led by USF College of Arts and Sciences researchers such as Dr. Erin Kimmerle, director of the Institute for Forensic Anthropology & Applied Science, revealed evidence of many unidentified and improperly buried bodies, raising questions about the treatment and fate of some of the boys who were housed at the school.

Whitehead said the two main characters in the novel, Elwood and Turner, highlight the essence of varying worldviews.

“For Elwood, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. provides a model of engagement with the world. If you stand up, you fight for justice and you can remake the world. Turner is the opposite number and has survived by seeing the world as it actually is, not as you want to be,” Whitehead said.

“For me that’s the heart to the novel,” he said. “The war between these two philosophies in these two boys trying to find their own place in the world.”

The event concluded with additional questions from the audience and a book signing.

Whitehead is also the #1 New York Times bestselling author of “The Underground Railroad,” which was an Oprah’s Book Club selection and winner of the 2016 National Book Award and 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He was also named New York’s 11th State Author in 2018.

The Frontier Forum lecture series brings in speakers from around the world who are at the forefront of addressing issues of public interest and advancing research in their fields. Since 2010, the series has hosted several notable intellectuals such as Jane Goodall, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Roxane Gay and Matthew Desmond.

  • Colson Whitehead and CAS Interim Dean Magali Michael discuss Whitehead’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, “The Nickel Boys.” (Photo by Corey Lepak)

  • Colson Whitehead delivers his opening address to the audience, describing how the inspiration for his novel “The Nickel Boys” came from a news story he saw about the work of CAS anthropologists uncovering unmarked graves at the Dozier School. (Photo by Corey Lepak)

  • The discussion took place in the Marshall Student Center Oval Theater and welcomed more than 300 attendees. (Photo by Corey Lepak)

  • Attendees got a chance to meet Colson Whitehead at the conclusion of the discussion during the book signing. (Photo by Corey Lepak) 

  • Colson Whitehead (center) with Dean’s Student Leadership Society (DSLS) students who volunteered at the event. (Photo by Corey Lepak)

View more event photos 

The lecture series is open to all students, faculty, and the community. Stay updated on attending future upcoming Frontier Forum events.

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CAS Chronicles is the monthly newsletter for the University of South Florida's College of Arts and Sciences, your source for the latest news, research, and events at CAS.